I can’t believe the news today | Safer chemicals blog

I am undertaking an unusual exercise on a Tuesday morning - I am setting out to write a blog post not really knowing what it is I wish to share. Suspended between what is anticipated and the possible inflection of what could be achieved through the cracks of light emanating from the august Gallic ray of hope personified by the champion of the environment, Nicholas Hulot (Ah les lumières francaise!). I am once again writing about the contentious criteria to define Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs).

The reason being that the PAFF Committee (Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed) will meet yet again to discuss, and more importantly, (at the time of writing) to potentially vote on the latest iteration of the long-awaited, controversial definition of the EDC criteria. Last week, Vytenis Andriukaitis, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said in a strongly-worded tweet that it would be “against people’s health” if EU member countries failed to vote in favour of a European Commission proposal on endocrine disrupting chemicals after a year of discussions; he added “No more delays possible”. 

Condemned by the General Court of the European Union in December 2015 for its inaction, the European Commission eventually issued its set of criteria on 15th June 2016. The European Commission was under legal obligation to come up with scientific criteria for EDCs by December 2013 - to regulate these harmful chemicals more effectively. The legal obligation came from two sources: Article 5 (3) of the Biocidal Products Regulation (528/2012), and Article 80 (7) of the Pesticides Regulation (1107/2009). Therefore the text submitted yesterday at the PAFF Committee was long overdue, indeed.

One would be tempted to commend the belated zeal of Commissioner Andriukaitis - but I, and many other NGO representatives and eminent scientists, would caution against mistaking activity for achievement. Trust me, I am not indulging in a cheap rhetorical quip; I too would wish to see clear progress on the definition of EDC criteria. Progress, however, is not tantamount to jumping through required regulatory hoops so as to be seen as complying with legal requirements. I think you would all agree that what is adopted should stand up to scrutiny and comply with the precautionary principle – a fundamental principle of EU governing policies related to the environment, health and food safety is enshrined in Article 191 (ex 174 (2)).

In adopting the present criteria, due to time and political pressures, one must be sure that it does not act “against people’s health”, to quote the Health Commissioner. Looking at what is on the table, leaving aside scientific and overly technical discussions for a moment, the bone of contention remains the exactingly high burden of proof that the criteria mandate. 

Whilst most scientists and NGOs push for a definition of these criteria that would capture presumed EDCs (erring on the side of caution - in keeping with the precautionary principle), the European Commission opted for a potentially much narrower definition, requiring that the substance must show an adverse effect. Let me quote from a recent letter sent by the Endocrine Society to the competent EU Member States ministers, where the outstanding issues are clearly and unambiguously stated.

“The criteria, as currently constructed, will likely fail to identify EDCs that are currently causing human harm, and will not secure a high level of health and environment protection as required per the Treaty on the European Union (EU). Furthermore, the criteria contain arbitrary exemptions for chemicals specifically designed to disrupt target insect endocrine systems that have similarities to systems in wildlife and humans. Consequently, the criteria cannot be called science‐based, nor can they be considered as “fit for purpose” according to the better regulation strategy, as they lack coherence and will not be effective or efficient. We strenuously object to the addition of loopholes in the criteria. This creates divergent frameworks wherein certain chemicals that are designed to be EDs cannot be defined as EDs in the context of applicable laws.”

The Endocrine Society represents the leading medical experts in endocrinology present in over 120 countries counting in excess of 17,000 members. I think their views should be heard and their verdict is clear: the criteria as they stand will not do. This does not mean, however, that politics should bow out, bequeathing their responsibilities to technocratic/scientific elites - far from it. 

Those who will vote on the criteria (yesterday) act as representatives of the EU governments, and by extension their parliaments and electorate; in this capacity they ultimately should decide and carry the responsibility. To assist them, they should indeed follow due process and therefore hear the two sides of the story. That is why when a few days ago the scientists working for Crop Life International – whose evocative and pulsating name comprises the giants in food science – undertook a thorough and rigorous critique of the underlying methodology of a series of economic papers published by the Endocrine Society in 2015 and 2016 - our decision makers should also take heed. In these papers, The Endocrine Society estimated the annual health care costs attributable to EDC exposure in the hundreds of billions of euros and dollars. This estimation is what the Crop Life International project – that goes by the dependable name of Endocrine Science Matters – took issue with.

I wish to make two simple points on this; the first one is anodyne and sedate to me. To know who funded the study of Endocrine Science Matters, matters, the second point is more abstract and goes back to the precautionary principle. The issue for Endocrine Science Matters (the Crop Life International sponsored project) is that the Endocrine Society economic papers were, in their view, sloppy. Read for yourselves:

“We found that the disease burden and cost estimates were as flawed and immaterial to public health decision-making as many experts first suspected. For example, the authors assumed causal relationships between putative exposures to EDCs and selected diseases, e.g. “loss of IQ” and “increased prevalence of intellectual disability,” but did not establish them via thorough evaluation of strengths and weaknesses of underlying animal toxicology and human epidemiology evidence. Consequently, the assigned disease burden costs are highly speculative and should not be considered in a weight-of-evidence approach underlying policy discussions to protect the public and regulate chemicals considered possible EDCs.”


I am sure the Endocrine Society would be the first to concede that they would have hoped and wished for more funding to carry out a more thorough study. Be that as it may, the key word for me is: speculative. The first entry for speculative in the Oxford dictionary reads as follows: “engaged in, expressing, or based on conjecture rather than knowledge”. Does that not ring bell? Is there not an echo of the precautionary principle in this definition?

Beyond the familiar technique of using certain firms or conflicted scientists to cast doubts on the reliability of the Endocrine Society’s outputs, there is a bizarre, objectionable expectation that findings should be conclusive beyond recall - – seemingly ignoring the very notion of the precautionary principle. Yet recall Karl Popper who said that “[i]n so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality”.1 In short: certainty is not of this world except when it comes to beliefs and ideologies.

I also have more tangible concerns ahead of the meeting. As I suggested in an earlier blog post, the European Commission’s EDC criteria seem to be a foregone conclusion, preordained if you will, as if hatched under the looming, unavowed, and ominous influence of larger considerations. After EurActiv published an article, New Endocrine Disruptor Rules Address your Trade Concerns, EU tells US, Canada (12th December 2016), we know that it is at least partially the case. The article comments on the released memo (14th July 2016) saying: “The European Commission told the U.S. and Canada that draft EU pesticides laws would “address the concerns” they had over possible trade restrictions on goods exposed to endocrine disruptors. The press coverage of this worrying exchange was minimal - yet the issue was also raised by Members of the European Parliament on January 9th 2017 via an oral question.

Nevertheless, at the time of writing (Tuesday morning, ahead of the meeting) I am not entirely pessimistic, recently, France elected a new president, and in his campaign he hammered on the fact that he would address the issue of EDCs; in prime time debates he stuck his neck out, he was committed. In this short clip you can see his determination in responding to Benoît Hamon’s insinuation, suspecting Macron of being conflicted. Macron was clear - he will tackle EDCs – it was even included in his programme, surely, he will not backpedal. Appointing Nicholas Hulot as Minister of Ecological and Solidary Transition also bodes well. Mr Hulot is a champion of the environment and a man of conviction. Recent news reports detailed his efforts to improve the EDC criteria in discussions with his German counterpart, so there are reasons to be hopeful.

Returning from my lunch break I am now back at my desk and I cannot believe the news today - the member states voted in favour of the EDC criteria. It is nothing short of a disappointment. Before signing off, humour me one last time and allow me to share a quote with you again, this time from Raymond Chandler. I adapted the selected excerpt, substituting the word “art” with “politics”, in its noblest acceptation of course.

“There are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and the second is politics. Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other. Without politics science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science politics would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of politics keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps politics from becoming ridiculous.”2

[1] The Two Fundamental Problems of the Theory of Knowledge (2014 edition), Routledge

[2] The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler; and English Summer: A Gothic Romance by Raymond Chandler, Frank MacShane (Editor), Edward Gorey

Preview image: Sebastien Bertrand via Flickr cc